Monday, February 20, 2012

Twitter is Killing the News

For the average user, Twitter is an incredible way to share thoughts, beliefs or general updates about one’s life.  It has also given a unique way for people to break news to the world before it hits traditional news media outlets.  Many stories broke on Twitter before they hit traditional media outlets.  Whitney Houston’s death was tweeted well before the traditional news outlets by people with connections to Whitney Houston’s staff.  @AjaDiorNavy tweeted “omgg, my aunt tiffany who work for whitney houston just found whitney houston dead in the tub . such ashame and sad :-(” about forty minutes before traditional media.
Unfortunately, many reporters who have relied on Twitter to break news have gotten into trouble with their employers.  When Associated Press reporters were arrested during an Occupy Wall Street protest, the journalists broke the news on Twitter.  The Associate Press subsequently cracked down on these reporters for breaking the news on Twitter before submitting it to the news wire.  This sparked a spirited debate between reporters on whether a reporter was free to break their own news or if they had to route the breaking news through their employers first.
There is no surprise that traditional news companies are pushing back against this sort of Twitter usage.  These sorts of news agencies are essential advertising companies.  They don’t make money from telling the news – they make money from selling advertising space on their webpages and in their newspapers.  They are afraid of two things.  First, they are afraid that if a reporter breaks news on their personal twitter account, they will divert traffic away from the websites of their parent companies.  Second, they are afraid when the reporter tweets, they are boosting their own brand rather than the company’s, which hurts the company’s brand.
Many in the tech world say that news companies are behaving in a reactionary fashion – that they are acting backwards.  However, I believe that news agencies are making a valid point.  When reporters break news on their personal twitter sites, they are taking away their employer’s opportunity to break the news.  This is actually a huge blow for their employers because they benefit from breaking news for their traffic.  If the Associated Press journalists had broken their stories on AP, they would have generated massive traffic for the Associated Press.  Instead, they generated massive traffic for their personal twitter pages and allowed other news agencies to write their own stories about the arrests, further reducing the traffic the Associated Press would attract.
Many argue that, in the age of Twitter and Facebook, waiting for an article to get written, sent in and published is a ridiculous waste of time.  I think this claim misses the point.  The reason we rely on news agencies for news content is that we believe they provide an unbiased and accurate description of current events, not because they give us instantaneous news updates.  Note that because of these requirements, writing good news has always required a bit of extra time.  Even if a random person tweets about a current event (like Whitney Houston’s death), we won’t know if it is true until a reputable news source confirms it.
Rather than writing a 140 character tweet, reporters should send their editors a 140 character text describing the situation.  Their editors can then create a quick article about it and post a tweet to the new source’s twitter.  This process wouldn’t take more than 10 minutes.  This would divert traffic to the news company’s site and allow them to make money.
Some may wonder why it is so important that news companies make money, but who would pay reporters if news companies didn’t make money?  In an ideal world, news reporters would release news as soon as they could and wouldn’t have to rely on large corporations to fact check them or pay them.  Unfortunately, that is not the world we currently live in.


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